Thursday, October 29, 2009

ze Swajzijska do Krugeru

Tentokrat trocha z nasi kratke zastavky v malinkem kralovstvi Swajzijsko. Swaijzijsko je jednou z nejmensich zemi Afriky a je obklopeno Jihoafrickou republikou. Bylo tam krasne zeleno, kopcovita krajinka a pratelsti a usmevavi lide. Ztravili jsme tam jenom par dni, kempovali jsme v prirodni rezervaci Milwane, kde se nam prochazeli po kempu zebry, pstrosi a prasata bradavicnata (to jsou moji favoriti). Jeden den jsme si zarizovali viza do Mozambiku a bylo to prekvapive jednoduche a levne. Dalsi den jsme navstivili trziste v Manzini, ktery bylo docela zajimavy, prodavali tam hodne rucne vyrobenych veci a oproti vetsine Africkych trzist, kde se prodavaji plastovy veci z Ciny, kteryma je Afrika zaplavena, to bylo docela prijemny prekvapeni.

Tak jsme si tam krasne odpocinuli, dokud nas zase nedohnal dest a vyhnal nas z hor zpet do JAR.V Nelspruitu jsme prespali pred cestou do Blyde River Canyon a okoli, na prespani jsme nasli krasnej kemp.

A cekalo nas nase posledni Safari v Africe a to ve snad nejznamejsim Narodnim Parku Afriky, Kruger. Je parada, ze tam muzes svym autem a zvirata si hledas sam. I kdyz nas vsichni strasili abysme nejezdili o vikendu, nakonec to nejak tak vyslo a tak jsme videli jak si jihoafricani uzivaji vikend. Jako my jezdime na chatu o vikendu, oni jedou kempovat s karavanem do parku, pres den s pivkama pozorujou zvirata a vecer s pivkama rozzhavej ohne a ogrilujou nejaky masaky. Kempy jsou neuveritelne vybaveny, muzes tam nakoupit nalozeny maso, vsechny druhy piv a to studeny a v koupelnach jsou i vany a kdyz nestaci vana, je tam vzdycky bazen. No a tak v sobotu po horkym dni jsme nechteli byt vyjimkou a nakoupili jsme basu piv a asi kilo masa a grilovali jsme taky.Stravili jsme tam 3 dni a 2 noci, videli jsme opravdu hodne zvirat, hodne ziraf, zeber, slonu (kteri jsou tam momentalne premnozeny a vsechno nicej, tak se resi co se bude delat s tolika slonama), buvolu, pakonu, hrochu, nosorozcu bilych a dokonce i cernych, jednu osklivou hyenu, par bandicek lvu (bohuzel vetsinou z dalky) a posledni rano jen par metru od cesty leoparda s dvouma leopardatkama a to bylo uplne super.

Krajinaka tam byla taky moc krasna a kazdy den se to menilo a tak to byl peknej zaver nasich africkych Safari.Vratili jsme se do Nelspruit, oslavili narozky dalsi grilovackou a hodne alkoholem, vybalili auto po mesici a vsechno to zase zabalili do batohu a zpatky na zada. A z Nelspruitu uz jsme zase pokracovali mistni dopravou, rozloucili jsme se na chvili s JAR a vyrazili do Maputa, Mozambik. Teda nase prvni jizda autobusem byla neco, autobus byl plnej mozambicanu a vsichni prevazeli cerstvi maso z JAR do Mozambiku, takze vsude po autobuse tekla krev z igelitek, no a nejhorsi to bylo v prostoru na bagaz a samozrejme muj batoh se v tom celej vyvalel a nasaknul pekne tou krvi...proste mnamka!!!!

tak se vsichni mejte krasne, my jdem uzivat plazi, slunicka a krevet!!!!
monika a allan

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Into The Wild

We fled the Eastern Cape due to the bad weather but as we entered KwaZulu-Natal the weather took a dramatic turn for the worse. By the time we approached Durban the motorways were several inches underwater and so not only did 'motorway' driving entail the challenges of avoiding the cows and other animals, the old women crossing and the boys cycling in the hard shoulder but also avoiding the cars that were still speeding past, aquaplaning along as though it were a fine, sunshiny day. By the time we arrived in Durban I was convinced that we were on the verge of a natural disaster and that we would wake up in the morning and find ourselves floating half-way to Antartica. Actually in the morning we awoke to bright blue skies and all the water had vanished. Which I guess proves the point of all the locals who claim they are desperate for the rains.

Durban does not have the greatest reputation among travellers, particularly regarding safety, so we restricted ourselves to exploring just the Indian quarter around the Victoria Street market. The market itself is housed in a large building which manages to contain all the the colour and aroma of India, souvenir sellers vying with the spice merchants for business. There are also several cafes selling curries and other Indian foods including the Durban speciality 'bunny chow', a hollowed out loaf of bread filled with a curry of choice. In the surrounding area, amongst more trade and commerce is a mosque and madrassa (and a rather out-of-place Cathedral!). People are surprised that the Hindu temple, the largest in South Africa, is way across town from this area. It did not surprise me as it is convenient located just behind the Kingsmead cricket ground. Indians using one religion to follow another! Experiencing the Indian culture in Durban offers another viewpoint of South African society. Although they obviously live within their own huge network of family and contacts the Indian population seems far more liberal and modern in Durban than in Delhi. Despite this Durban does feel like a big Indian city. Perhaps that is why it was never the state capital?

Durban is also famous within South Africa for its beaches, although some have become crime-ridden no-go areas. The most famous is probably Umhlanga, just a few kilometres north of the centre, where luxury resorts and giant shopping malls hem the beachfront. We only visited for a short while and by then the skies had clouded over once more so unfortunately we did not have the quintessential South African beach experience!

We drove inland up into the Drakensburg mountains. Amazingly the higher we got the better the weather became and we enjoyed a few days of trekking under cloudless African skies. The Drakensburg is separated into several protected areas and it would require a long time to visit all of them. We decided to just visit two areas, the Monks Cowl and Royal Natal national parks. Although both were beautiful, Royal Natal was the highlight, trekking past beautiful rock formations and through lush green valleys to amazing viewpoints. Just a few kilometres away is the town of Ladysmith, home of the famous musical group the Ladysmith Black Mambazo. This proximity was fitting as whilst trekking through Royal Natal it seemed as if these African rhythms were being carried on the wind. Also we had a copy of Paul Simon's 'Graceland' in the car, a more tangible connection!

Throughout South Africa we have been staying in a variety of accommodations, mostly either 'backpackers' (as they are known here) or at one of South Africa's many, well-run, municipal camp sites. These provide a relaxing refuge from the rigors of the backpackers. The campsites are always full of South African families, keeping themselves to themselves, having a braii in the evening but otherwise peaceful and quiet. One of the best campsites we have stayed in was Mahai camp situated in Royal Natal. It seems that families come to camp for the weekend without even considering trekking, they just come for the views from the camp and the excellent facilities. Whilst not many have a fully equipped kitchen they generally have a space where you can prepare food and wash up afterwards and the bathrooms always, always, have big bathtubs and plenty of hot water.

Soon enough the rain returned and we headed back to the sea, along the Elephant coast up to St. Lucia. The drive from Drakensburg was a long, dull and dreary 400km, the only bright side coming from some of the stranger road signs. My favourites include 'ABNORMAL', which is always hung on the back of wide-load or 'long' vehicles or displayed by their car escort and 'ROBOT AHEAD' which is not a derogatory term for a traffic cop but actually the South African term for a set of traffic lights. Not quite so amusing are the antics of South African drivers, who must be amongst the most aggressive in the world. Worst are the minibus drivers (who apparently have such strong unions that they would never ever be convicted of any traffic offence), rich Pretoria businessmen in blacked out Mercs and the old Afrikaans farmers. These guys always loom large in the rear view mirror, beeping and flashing before over-taking and giving you the finger as they pass. I was shocked, they are the age of my grandad, with their wives in the passenger seat, and they cut me so close as to almost cause an accident. What makes it worse is that drink-driving almost seems compulsory in South Africa (to the point where it is quite common to see guys drinking a beer whilst they are actually driving) so it begs the question, how many beers did they have for breakfast? After a while I realised the cause of their frustration. In South Africa it is customary for slow drivers to pull into the hard shoulder to let others past, even if the road is clear for a normal overtaking manoeuvre. Once I started to yield to these speed demons I received far fewer fingers! As well as the drink-driving it seems that speed limits are totally disregarded by all South Africans, despite the limits being very generous, in fact the normal limit for a single lane highway in South Africa is higher than that on a motorway in the UK.

Thankfully we arrived in St. Lucia safe and sound, just a few frayed nerves that a beer or two would fix. St. Lucia became one of my favourite places in South Africa. A small town surrounded by jungle on an estuary full of crocs and hippos. It is a fairly touristic town, with reminders of a Floridian retirement village, and the main drag is packed with bars, restaurants and hotels but behind that are dirt tracks on which hippos roam free at night. It feels like jungle wilderness and it is, right down to the regular afternoon rains. Along the coast north of the town runs the St Lucia Wetlands protected area, and at the tip, Cape Vidal, a beautiful stretch of beach popular with weekenders. As a bonus the route to the beach doubles as a game drive, with rhinos crashing out of the bushes and onto the road, kudu and buffalo grazing and the constant threat of lions should you risk alighting from your vehicle. We had only seen three rhinos in Africa, all lazing about by Lake Nakuru in Kenya, here we saw 5 just driving to the beach and back!

Just 40km further away is the entrance to Hluhluwe national park, the first protected area in South Africa and an alternative to Kruger for spotting the Big 5. The park is set in a stunning landscape of rolling hills and thick foliage. We were not so lucky with the animals, spotting just a few more rhino, zebra, warthogs, wildebeest and giraffe. And the top of a lions head from about 100 yards!

Some of my personal highlights of countries appear mundane, selfish and whimsical when compared to the greater impressions. For example in India I enjoy going to the barbers for a shave (and paying about 20p for it) just as much as I admire the freedom and democracy. In South Africa I love being able to have a hot, high pressure, shower on a daily basis. After several months washing under trickles of cold water throughout Africa this has become one of my personal highlights, especially during these rainy days. Hot showers for me are up there with equality and development in South Africa!

It was time for a brief break from South Africa so we drove into the small kingdom of Swaziland. I assumed it would be vastly different, more rural and less densely populated than South Africa. Wrong. In fact because it is such a small country the people are quite crowded together. Despite this however we found the people to be very warm and welcoming, much more so than in South Africa. No question was too much trouble to answer and everyone behaved in a friendly manner. We camped at a guesthouse within the Mliliwane Nature Sanctuary, sharing the campsite and the splendid views with ostrich and warthogs. Mliliwane is situated in the Ezulwini valley between the two major towns of Manzini and Mbabane and very close to the Kings former residence at Lobamba. The highlight of Manzini for us was the market, Mbabane we found to be a pleasant city but without any distinctive highlights. The Ezulwini valley is a beautiful stretch of winding roads, hills and farmland which serves as the base for tourism within the country. Whilst we were there the sky was clear and the sun blistering hot. Unfortunately we were not able to visit the Royal Palace as it is off-limits but we did visit the memorial gardens of the previous king, albeit on our last day as the rains returned. The King is not so popular in neighbouring countries these days due to his policy of selecting very young girls to become his next wife. This feeling did not seem to be prevalent within Swaziland however as every hotel, shop or other establishment has at least one photo of his majesty hanging prominently.

On our last day the bad weather forced us to leave straight for South Africa rather than taking the scenic route via Piggs Peak. We arrived in the town of Nelspruit, a pleasant town set int he hills with a very secure feel. As with the whole of South Africa the entire town is obsessed with the 2010 World Cup. Nelspruit is one of the host cities, as is Durban, and in both cities shiny, new, very impressive stadia have been built and the entire road network is being totally overhauled in preparation. South Africa resembles a country of total development with people even renting out their spare rooms or whole houses to desperate visitors who were unable to snap up hotel beds on time. It is just a shame that Bafana Bafana, the South African national team, cannot live up to this mania. Their Brazilian coach, Joel Santana quite just a few days ago after a string of poor performances, the most recent of which came up in Reykjavik. I suspect communication played a massive part on his lack of success, in TV interviews his poor grasp of English is openly ridiculed by the interviewers and pundits and one wonders how he communicates with the players? Still, Fabio Capello doesn't seem hampered by a lack of English so who knows?

Nelspruit is conveniently located close to Blyde River Canyon and Kruger National Park so we set off for a tour of the region. In good weather a visit to Blyde River Canyon is a excellent day trip with stops at various sites and viewpoints along the way watching the colours on the rock escarpment change as the sun moves across the sky. Perhaps the best views are those overlooking the 'Three Rondavels' formation. There are a couple of nice campsites close by, offering swimming pools and other amenities in addition to the usual services.

And on to Kruger park, one of the most famous places in Africa. Not only was it our last chance for game viewing in South Africa but also of our whole trip. Thankfully the visit lived up to these expectations, especially due to the thrill of seeking out the big game independently. Our only disappointment was that we only saw two prides of lions, and both from several hundred yards away. For some reason I expected at Kurger there would be so many lions laying around I would be tripping over them. We did see more giraffe here than in the rest of Africa combined as well as herds and herds of elephants. Our main highlights were seeing a hyena close by the road with no-one else around, being held up by a herd of around 200 buffalo crossing the road and spending the night next to our campsite, stumbling upon a black rhino (just about the most endangered animal in Africa) munching away at leaves by the side of the road, and spotting a leopard with cubs wandering around in the undergrowth just metres from our car. We also saw a jackal for the third time in Africa, but again were unable to get a good photo! The weather was scorching for the first two days which made all the animals lazy, lying in any available shade, on the third day it cooled and we were able to see a little more action!

Everyone told us to avoid the weekend in the park but we wanted a true Kruger experience and so we visited on a weekend. Brits go to the seaside for the weekend, the Swiss to mountains and Czechs to their cottages whilst South Africans go to game parks to relax! The campsites were full of families, the swimming pools full, the bars running out of beer and everyone having a braii by their caravan. To complete our Kruger experience, and to celebrate Monikas birthday, we joined in and fired up our own braii. A true South African religion is the braii (or barbeque). By Saturday afternoon all towns have ground to a halt and barely anyone is on the streets until Monday morning. The time is spent in the garden, or at a campsite, cooking vast amounts of meat and eating them with garlic bread, salads, beer and wine. It is a traditional that truly unifies South Africa (luckily there are hardly any vegetarians here). There are certain rules and etiquette however, the most important being - never touch someone else's braii and never advise them on their meat!

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

trocha Jihoafricke republiky

Uzasnej pocit, prvni zeme, kam nepotrebujem viza, takze jenom razitko do pasu. Dopoledne jsme prijeli do Kapskeho mesta, tmave modra obloha, krasnej morskej vzdousek a Stolova hora za hlavou. Jedinej kemp v centru, museli jsme trochu preorganizovat stany, abysme se tam vubec vmackli a vyrazili jsme na obdivovany tohohle prijemne krasnyho mesta a byli jsme uplne uneseny.

Rozhodli jsme se pro pronajmuti auta, prej Jihoafricka republika ma nejlevnejsi pronajem aut a to za 350kc na den, coz nam prisla paradni cena a opustili jsme Kapske mesto luxusnim golfem. Prirodni rezervace Cape of Good Hope (Mys dobre nadeje) i kdyz to neni nejjiznejsi bod Afriky je tim nejznamejsim.

A poprve jsme vyzkouseli takzvanou Wild Card, ktera plati na skoro vsechny parky v JAR a je normalne pekne draha, daroval nam ji starsi francouzky par v Malawi a nebyli prvni, kdo ji pouzival. Akorat jsem predstirala, ze jsem Britta z Nemecka a nikdo se na nic neptal. Platilo nam to na vsechny Narodni parky, ktere jsme navstivili v Jihoafricke republice. Pokracovali jsme po pobrezi a videli jsme hodne tucnaku, neuveritelny mnozstvi verlyb v Hermanus jen nekolik desitek metru od brehu, na zacatku Garden Route jsme navstivili Allanovyho strejdu, ktery zije v Johanesburgu, ale v Knysne byl s manzelkou na dovoleny. Dali nam adresu a at se stavime na par dni, prijeli jsme tam spinavym golfem, v zadu jsme susili pradlo na snuze a v tricku a kratasech. Byl to ten nejluxusnejsi rezort, co si umim predstavit Ken a Marie tam vlastni takovou vilku na kopci, s horkou vyrivkou na balkone, vyhledem na more a golfovym hristem. Ukazali nam okoli a zustali jsme tam 2 noci a navstivime je jeste jednou doma v Johanesburgu a pujdem spolecne na kriket!!!Se zastavkou v Tsitsikammma narodnim parku

jsme pokracovali smer Wild Coast, pocasi se zacalo zhorsovat a my jsme se snazili dostat do prirodni rezervace Dwesa, ale cesty zacali byt bahnity, nikdo nic nevedel koho jsme se zeptali a nase mapa nebyla dostatecne podrobna a tak jsme zabloudili. Zacalo pekne prset a my jsme kouzali po bahnitejch cestach dokud jsme nepichly. Vzali jsme nejaky stoparky a kdyz uz se zacalo stmivat konecne jsme se dostali zpet na asfalt. Dostat se do Coffee Bay bylo jeste par hodin cesty a i kdyz se snazime vyhnout rizeni v noci, nic jineho nam nezbyvalo. Vsechno dobre dopadlo az na to, ze byla nedele druhej den a nemohli jsme vymenit rezervu a tak jsme se zasekli v ne moc zajimavym mestecku Mhatha. Dlouhej destivej den do Durbanu, kde jsme si uzili trochu Indie. Je to mesto s nejvetsi populaci indu mimo Indii. Nenechali jsme si ujit mistni specialitu Banu Chow, indicky curry ve vydlabanym chlebu. Verim, ze Wild Coast by se nam moc libilo, kdyby bylo hezky, ale protoze nam prselo 3 dny v kuse moc jsme toho nevideli.

Ale v Draccich horach se na nas slunicko usmalo a 2 dny nas hralo v kopcich. Sli jsme 2 treky, jeden ve strednim Dragensbergu a druhej v Royal Natal N.P. a kempovali jsme v krasnych mistnich kempech.

Dalsi dlouhy den na silnici do St. Lucia, prselo tak, ze ani kempovat jsme nemohli, ale okoli bylo krasny, videli jsme hodne vzacnych nosorozcu, kterych jsme se doposud tolik nenanbazili, hodne hrochu a krasne divoke plaze.

Navstivili jsme take Huhluwe N.P., kde jsme ocekavali, ze uvidime trochu vic, ale hodne nosorozcu a to i nosorozec cerny, ale priroda byla tak krasna, ze nam nestacilo 9 hodin a druhej den jsme se tam jeste vratili.

Vsechno se tu toci kolem Mistrovstvi sveta ve fotbale 2010, vsude se stavi stadiony a opravuji silnici a je dobry, ze hodne lidi ma praci, jinak je to 25% nezamestnanost, ale to se nevi co bude potom. Skoda, ze Jihoafricka republika neni dobra ve fotbale, naposledy prohrali s Islandem tak nevim, kam to dotahnou na mistrostvi. Taky bude velky problem s bezpecnosti, je tu hodne velka kriminalita a tak nevim, jak to dopadne.

Rizeni v JAR je docela hruza, je tu hrozne moc autonehod a vsichni jezdi jak blazni, hlavne ridici minibusu. Ty jsou vzdycky a vsude v Africe ti nejhorsi hazarderi, ale v ostatnich zemich neni tolik osobnich aut.Na normalni jednoproudovy silnici je povolena rychlost 120km/h, takze kdyz jedem 100km, tak na nas vsichni troubej jestli jsme normalni!! Alkohol a rizeni je tu naprosto normalni a kazdej to bere jako samozejmost.

Narodni jidlo " BRAI" grilovani, proste ugrilovat nejakej kus masa. A nebo "BILTONG" suseny kousky masa vetsinou hovezi, ale i nejaka zverina a to musim rict je moc dobry k pivu.

Tak to zatim asi vse, momentalne jsme ve Swaizilandu a pokracujem do JAR a Mozambiku pote.mejte se vsichni krasnemonika a allan

Cape Crusaders

As we arrived in Cape Town on the overnight bus from Windhoek we were aware of two facts, the first is that Cape Town is commonly touted as being one of the worlds top cities and the second being that South Africa has one of the highest crime rates in the world. Should we be amazed or petrified?

The main centre of Cape Town, at least as far as backpackers are concerned, is around Long Street, which can be roughly described as 2 parts Khao Sanh Road, 1 part Camden Town and 1 part Laugarvegur (the main street in Reykjavik). From here it is possible to walk to the shiny, and very tacky, V+A Waterfront (where we lasted about 15 minutes!) as well as to the older parts of town including the castle, which is one of the oldest buildings in South Africa. We camped at a lodge in the Gardens suburb of Cape Town, situated right at the foot of Table mountain. The lodge has a bar terrace from which it feels as if you could almost reach out and touch the side of the mountain. Or at least it would had it not been so bloody windy during our entire stay that we were actually blown out of the campsite and into the safety of a room! The sky was absolutely clear and the weather perfect apart from the wind, which prevented us from climbing the mountain. It seems that clear days do not come by too often on the Cape of Good Hope and when they do it’s too windy to climb! Nevermind, we consoled ourselves with pints of Pilsner Urquell (on draft!) from a pub on Long Street. An Irish pub ironically, but I suppose Prague is closer to Dublin than to Cape Town!

After a few days soaking up the culture of Cape Town we hopped in a hire car and headed off to explore more of South Africa. Why another hire car? Sure, there is more public transport here than in Namibia but we have been put off public transport by about 600 South Africans who have warned us as we have come down through Africa that if we even set foot in a minibus here we will certainly be mugged, raped and murdered. Of course I am sure it is not as bad as that but then we found a car hire firm with rates lower than the costs of the buses we would take over the same amount of time. So, in the end it was cheap and best to take a car! What was the first thing we did with our car? Visited Canal Walk shopping centre, claimed as the biggest in Africa or something. Why? I still don’t know, I think to buy a road atlas and Monika needed a new pair of hiking trainers but inevitably we got stuck there for hours, mostly because it really is so huge that its easy to get lost the instant you walk through the revolving doors!

The Cape peninsular has been the site of so much history that it felt quite eerie to be standing there, under the lighthouse that has witnessed a thousand wrecks. Driving back through the Cape of Good Hope Reserve we experienced one of those amazing collisions of history and nature as we passed ostriches and kudu wandering around by the side of the road, stepping in between the beautiful flora of the peninsular, albeit without the protea flower that was yet to bloom. Cruising around the peninsular feels like a perpetual television advert for a sports car, winding around the bends that hug the sides of the cliffs with stunning views of the ocean under a clear sky. Heading back through the peninsular we passed the penguin colony at Seaforth, battled through the legions of Japanese tourists (who were all trying their hardest to get bitten by a penguin!) and gazed at the large groups of penguins hanging around. We were glad we hadn’t paid for the spectacle but that’s another story! At St. James we stopped so look at the famous, colourful beach huts, only to find that on the weekend they can barely be seen through the hordes of sun worshippers!

We headed off of the peninsular and along the coast to the town of Hermanus, famous for its whale watching. We had not even parked our car and we had spotted six whales just off shore. Needless-to-say, if you like whales but you don’t fancy stumping up the cash for a boat trip, this is the place to come. OK, not much of the whales is visible at any one time but the really impressive facet is the sheer proximity to the shore.

Heading further along the coast we came to Cape Agulhas, the southern-most point of Africa. It is a nice picnic spot but there is no real reason to come other than the “most southerly point” thing. This seemed enough for many people but in reality it is just a piece of strong marketing from the tourism board. It is in no way comparable with the Cape of Good Hope, being further south is not enough!

By this time we had developed a fair idea of the popular foods in South Africa. In a nutshell its meat, meat and more meat, but eaten in a variety of tasty ways. A great snack (forget the chewy sweets!) is biltong. Biltong is dried meat, usually beef but often kudu or some other type of game, which is chewy, tasty and ideal either for long car journeys or with a beer after a hard days sightseeing. If you like your meat warm however the steaks and various boerewors (sausages) available are top quality and relatively cheap. South Africa also produces a whole host of great cheeses, so basically the most popular food here is anything that goes well with beer or wine! And the wine is very good and very cheap also!

From Cape Agulhas we headed on towards the Garden Route. Most guidebooks and brochures would describe it as one of the highlights of a trip to South Africa, right up there with Cape Town, Kruger park and the Drakensburg. Unfortunately we were about 20 years too late I think! It is no longer the pristine wilderness from which it got its name. There are resorts, golf courses and shopping malls all along the length of the Garden Route from Mossel Bay to Storms River, it could be described as South Africas Costa Del Sol. Our first stop was Mossel Bay, which is the Benidorm of the Garden Route, all high-rises and concrete monstrosities looming over the beach. We only camped overnight and perhaps the best thing about Mossel Bay is its spacious and clean municipal campsite. The next day a mist descended so we passed through George and Wilderness without seeing a whole lot at all. We stopped in Knysna which is far more pleasant than Mossel Bay, a mixture of local streets and resort plazas. We were lucky enough to be the guests of some relatives of mine at Pezula Golf and Spa resort on the outskirts of Knysna, the kind of place that has its own TV channel advertising itself and that gets listed in ‘Worlds Greatest Spas’ and then leaves magazines around so the guests are constantly reminded of how lucky they are to be staying there. It is a fantastic place and deserves its accolades and we were very grateful to have been able to stay there. As guests of Ken and Marie we were shown the sights of Knysna and the rest of the Garden Route along to Plettenberg Bay, commonly referred to as ‘Plett’, where we ate at one of the best restaurants we have visited in Africa, The Lookout, which served up giant portions of seafood and other delicacies at very reasonable prices.

Trying to understand South African society is an exercise in getting a headache however. No matter how hard everyone tries race seems to permeate every aspect of society, from where people live, where t hey shop (even which supermarket they visit), which beaches, hotels, restaurants and bars they frequent and even which sports they follow. Whilst almost all South Africans we have met, regardless of their colour, have been liberal and open-minded it does seem as if they prefer to live in their own groups, almost like a natural apartheid. I know that sounds strange and I may be wide of the mark but that’s the impression we have received.

Heading on from the Garden Route we stopped at Tsitsikamma National Park close to Storms River. A small park with some nice, well-marked trails and an abundance of monkeys, it reminded us of many of the national parks in the Malaysian state of Sarawak. We stopped for a half-day trek through the jungle to a viewpoint with stunning views over the coastline. Our next stop was at Jeffreys Bay, one of the surfing capitals of the world. There were lots of surfers there (blond hair, bare chests, board shorts) but no-one was surfing, apart from the streetkids that show up on Wednesdays for free lessons! Perhaps the wind was wrong or something or perhaps these days its enough to simply laze around watching surfing DVD’s and talking about surfing that you don’t need to actually bother getting wet!

Jeffreys Bay is close to Port Elizabeth, or PE as it is almost always known as. A large, yet non-descript, city we stopped only to visit the excellent Red Location, an apartheid museum in the New Brighton township. Built in an old factory with the exhibits housed in up-ended red shipping containers inside it is visually stunning and emotionally shocking, everyone should be made to visit. A slightly more pleasurable experience was Addo National Park, just inland from PE. Whilst we did not see any cats we did see quite a lot of wildlife (herds of buffalo and elephants, some warthogs, many tortoises, hundreds of dung beetles and several zebra, kudu and other antelope species), which was quite satisfying considering it was the first time we had driven ‘on safari’ by ourselves and that Addo consists of large areas of thick scrub and bush.

The coastal areas of the Western Cape are covered with shiny buildings, immaculate harbour developments and modern industrial and retail parks, all linked by good roads which are being improved all the time in readiness for 2010. As you enter the Eastern Cape however things deteriorate rapidly. At the same time you see more black South Africans whereas in the Western Cape many people are ‘Cape coloured’, descendants of slaves imported by the Dutch from Malaysia, Indonesia, Madagascar and Mozambique. They speak a strange dialect of Afrikaans and most have lost their specific ancestry due to generations of racial mixture. Travelling up the coast into the Eastern Cape is a reminder that this is Africa. In a small town called Butterworth that we passed through we suddenly realised this. There was more life on the streets but at the same time the roads deteriorated and there was more trash strewn around. One of the sad facets of South Africa is that even now, after years of an ANC government, the people in the old ‘homeland’ areas are still living in tumble down huts with no water or electricity supplies, the potholed streets littered with rubbish and with stray animals roaming around looking for food. The sides of the roads are covered with carcasses of animals that have been attracted to the road by the discarded fast food containers, whilst they were rooting through the remnants of someone’s Bargain Bucket, they looked out to see the headlights just a moment too late. A very real and depressing effect of littering.

Driving in the Eastern Cape involves not only conquering the potholes and dogs but also herds of cows and goats that have been left to graze freely, making night driving especially daunting, especially considering the amount of wrecked vehicles lying up-turned on the small roads of the Eastern Cape, along the worst stretches three or four can be counted every kilometre! During the journey from Addo to East London we had an overnight stop in Port Alfred, a nice little town along the way, before heading on the next day. Our first stop along the Wild Coast was at Chintsa, a nice secluded place with a stunning setting on the beach and an excellent backpackers lodge, Bucaneers, perched in the cliffs. It would have been perfect but it started to rain. It rained all night and all the next day as we searched for Dwesa Nature Reserve. This was probably the worst day of our whole trip. We got lost on dirt roads that were rapidly turning into mud-baths and we got a puncture during the worst of the rain storms. Actually we didn’t just get a puncture, we destroyed a whole tyre. And we never found Dwesa. We limped into Coffee Bay, touted as a ‘backpackers mecca’ by everyone who has ever been there. I thought it was over-rated. Maybe if you like the smell of marijuana (personally the smell makes me nauseous) you might enjoy it. It seemed to be one of those ‘cool’ places to hangout for weeks, full of dreadlocked tourists in fishermans pants. But, the weather was still terrible so maybe if it had been sunny I would have had a better impression.

In the end we missed Port St. Johns, our planned last stop on the Wild Coast. Why? The reasons are three-fold; firstly we were a bit fed-up of ‘backpackers hotspots’ and all that they entail, secondly the weather showed no signs of improvement and we did not fancy another night at the beach in the rain with nothing to do and thirdly, and most importantly, we did not fancy the 180km round trip from Mthatha on potholed roads with no spare tyre. Why no spare tyre? Because in South Africa nobody is allowed to make Baby Jesus cry by opening on a Sunday! The only option was to overnight in Mthatha, which was not the most interesting of places but in hindsight it was probably better than Port St. Johns would have been, although there was nothing in the way of budget accommodation. We consoled ourselves with pizza and trashy TV in our swanky B+B and as soon as we had the tyre fixed the next morning, (and found a wheel stud to replace then one I managed to snap) we fled towards Kwa-Zulu Natal!

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

The Story of the Gap Year

5 travel execs sit in a boardroom, brainstorming, seeking an idea for a new niche market. The green glow from the screens reflecting in their spectacle lens and the hum of the grey Olivetti PC's around them breaking the silence.

"We need a market that has lots of disposable income and lots of time to spend it"
"And it would be best if they didn't analyse the cost-value of their spending"
"We should find a market with more spare time"
"As we are a student-orientated agency shouldn't we target students? They have spare time... but never enough, and they have money.... but never, ever enough... hang on, why are we in this market?"
"What about students before they are students? We could encourage them to defer studying for a year..... a whole year of profit...."
"Plus it would be a last chance to get them when they still have mummy and daddy's money to spend, then they really won't care what they spend it on"
"We can market as a life-changing experience, without which further education would be useless wasted"
"Yes, let's go for the 'something to put on the CV' route, insinuating that the costs will be dwarfed by higher salaries a few years down the line!"
"Er, hang on guys, legions of teenage, public school brats with no life experience and no concept of respect for other cultures.... won't that destroy the reputation of the normal British backpackers? The very market that has got us where we are, the market that we have built our entire firm upon?" the fifth, and until now silent, member states.
The rest give him a wearied, withered grimace, a 'What's your point?' look. Why didn't he get it?

And so the Gap Year was born.

Nobody could have predicted what a runaway success such a cynical marketing plan could be. Overland tour companies saw their dwindling profits boost phenomenally - after years of 'doing it for themselves' the kids wanted to be looked after again, ironically at the same time putting another barrier between them and the life experience their parents thought they were getting. A whole host of spin-off start-ups were spawned in the wake of the Gap wave. Not in the least were the 'very-much-for-profit volunteer organisations that charged an arm and a leg to send kids to volunteer in places they really were not needed (teaching in capital cities for example), and did any money trickle down to these communities? Don't be silly. What a great idea, instead of paying people to work you charge them for it, and through the nose at that and you keep all the money.

Once they have 'dome their bit' of course the brats can move on to dreadlocks and banana pancakes on the Khao Sanh road, to collapsing under a full moon on Ko-Phan-Ngan and on to the annual 'Australia East Coast Brit-Brat Shagathon'.

All this from one stuffy board meeting. If only they could have seen the future.

5 worst things in Africa

1. Overland trucks
2. Overland tours
3. Overlanders
4. Overlanding
5. People in a group on an organised tour in a big truck

Why? Because they are generally rude and obnoxious with little or no respect for the locals and the customs of the country they are in, if they even know which country it is. Nor do they respect all the other, independent tourists that they meet. Every time a truck from one of these companies rolls up in a campsite you can hear a collective groan. They always party noisily into the night, drinking, shouting and screaming. In this way they are similar to the Brit-trash that ruin our reputation abroad on the various islands of the Med. These tours are promoted as 'something for the adventurous traveller', but they are no more than 18-30 holidays on wheels.

The worst part must be the experience for the people on the trips. They drive from site to sight, stopping for a bare minimum of time before heading off again. It's amazing they have time to drink so much. Heaven forbid anyone would actually want to stay anywhere a little longer. But would they be capable of such thoughts anyway? They never come into contact with local people, instead prefer to gawp from behind the safety of the reinforced windows of their truck. I remember seeing such a truck in Ghana stop in the middle of a street and one member jumped out, the others looking on in awe as he entered the realm of 'the natives' in order to buy some water. I bet he got a round of applause as he boarded the bus! Even worse is perhaps the effect they have on local populations. How would you feel if big trucks came past you everyday with people staring out and taking photos but not stopping to greet you? Wouldn't you feel like an animal in a zoo?

One of the most important features of travel for me is the food, so the idea of eating soggy pasta every night around the camp is total anathema.

I imagine that those that use overland trucks are those that believe they could not travel in Africa (or wherever) by themselves. This is due to the many misconceptions about travelling in Africa, many more than any other area of the world. And if you don't try, how do you know? Or perhaps it would be better to stick to Tenerife next time!

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Dune Buggy

It took us 14 hours to hitch-hike from Maun to Windhoek, a journey of around 800km with little or no public transport along the way. We arrived after dark, therefore the culture shock that is Namibia was delayed until the following morning. Part of the shock is generated by the sheer weirdness of Namibia, Windhoek being one of the most bizarre examples. Its a city crammed with German colonial architecture in the middle of dry and barren desert. The spires from the cities churches puncture the deep blue sky and the surrounding mountains add to the feeling that this city is in the wrong place at the wrong time. The other part of the shock comes from the fact that Namibia is a developed country, at least much more developed than any other country we have visited since arriving in Africa. Botswana gave us a few hints of what was to come but still the streets were dusty and the pavements potholed, buildings looking on the verge of falling down wedged between luxury lodges and on every street corner a rusted, abandoned minibus. Once in Namibia all of this was replaced by a glossy veneer, shining in the sun.

Due to Namibia having an even lower population density than Botswana there are next to no public transport options in Namibia. We realised that trying to hitch to the isolated spots of natural beauty the country is famous for would result in heat stroke, hypothermia and massive dust inhalation. We decided to hire a car for a week. The advantage of this is the ease with which we could travel between the sights and sites and also the freedom to stop whenever we wanted to take a photo, eat a sandwich or go to the toilet. The disadvantage of course is that the opportunity to observe peoples way of life at close hand is lost. However we suspected that Namibia (and South Africa) would less revealing and rewarding in any case. Hiring a car may also have affected what we looked for, and found, and as a result the composition of this post might also be different from usual.

We left Windhoek along one of Namibias half-a-dozen tarmac roads and headed for the Atlantic coast town of Swakopmund. In under two months we had travelled from Africa's Indian Ocean coast to the Atlantic Ocean coast, a small trip hidden within a much larger journey. We drove through nothing, but unlike in Botswana this nothingness was fascinating, the scenes and colours changing every few kilometres. We arrived in Swakopmund and headed along the hard, salt, coastal road and found a place to camp by a fisherman's hut on the beach.

The next day we returned to explore Swakopmund. One of the former 'German South West Africa' strongholds, the influence is still very much evident today. Walking between the opulent German colonial buildings and passing schools full of blonde haired, blue eyed kids made me feel a bit sick. It didn't feel like a German town but rather like the town a group of Germans would build trying to recreate a German town. I imagined that Margate or Great Yarmouth could have looked like this had Hitler had his way (of course they wouldn't as both were very much in existence by then but you get my point). I should add that I have no issue with Germany or Germans at all, in fact I would much rather spend my time with Germans than a bunch of boorish Brits. That is the point however, the people living in Swakopmund speaking, eating, drinking, living German, listening to German radio, with their kids learning in German are not German! The question is.. what are they?

Immediately after leaving Swakopmund our spirits lifted. The road between Swakopmund and Walvis Bay is lined with sand dunes that seem to crumble straight into the sea. It took ages to cover the 35km because we kept stopping to take photos and climb dunes. Walvis Bay was a British trading port before the Germans arrived so was spared the architecture overhaul by general British disinterest and is just something resembling a caravan park, but no weird feelings either. The most interesting part of Walvis Bay was around the salt mine, out on the Pelican Point sand spit. The presence of high levels of sodium has created a spectacularly coloured landscape and attracted huge flocks of pelicans and flamingoes.

Leaving Walvis Bay meant a 200km drive along gravel roads in the arresting deserted landscape of the Namib-Nauklauft National Park, the views constantly changing, from desert to mountains to canyons and back to desert and mountains again. Hmm, driving a small Hyundai around a sparsely populated yet stunningly beautiful country on poorly maintained gravel roads. Sound familiar? You could be forgiven for thinking we were back in Iceland again, in fact there are many similarities between the countries and I reckon if Iceland had 40°C summers then it would end up looking like Namibia sooner or later. We camped on the edge of the Kuiseb canyon, technically illegal but we hadn't seen a park official, or anyone else, for over four hours to direct us to a camp site.

Almost as essential a stop when visiting Namibia as Sossusvlei is Moose's Bakery in the isolated one-horse town of Solitaire, aptly named! Moose looks more like he should be tearing up Namibia's dirt trails on a Harley rather than baking exquisite apple strudels and cheese-cakes, but that's exactly what he is doing, to the delight of all visitors, most of whom made a significant detour just to pass by.

Part of the Namib-Nauklauft National Park are the Nauklauft Moutains. There are two one-day treks within the park and we hiked both of them. The entrance to the park and the camping fees were very good value, further proof that the more developed a country, the better value it becomes.

The 10km 'Olive Trail' afforded amazing views of the surrounding landscape before descending into an orange canyon where the beauty was brought much closer. No evidence of olives though so the origin of the name remains a mystery. The canyon was teeming with Rock Hyrax, also known as Dassies, small animals that are supposedly the closest living mammal to elephants but resemble more a rabbits distant cousin.

The 17km 'Waterkloof Trail was less rewarding as much of it involved stumbling over a rocky dry river bed with just a few crystal clear pools for distraction before climbing up over a cacti-laden pass. This provided our soles (and souls) a brief respite from the rocks before descending back to the river and to the camp-site.

Probably the most famous image of Namibia for many people is the orange sea of sand dunes at Sossusvlei, and this was our next stop. All of a sudden we were surrounded by other tourists and, after struggling along over the gravel roads the last 65km to the dunes was pristine tarmac. The popularity of Sossusvlei is more than justified, the towering dunes (some up to 350m high) look postcard perfect especially in the early morning when one half is still covered in shade. So perfect in fact that they do not look natural. The Oryx grazing under the dunes amidst the leafless trees provide the scene for a thousand photos.

We managed to get a lift the last 5km from the car park to the dunes themselves before walking into, around and all over them. Although Sossusvlei is highly visited, at least by Namibian standards, there is enough room for everyone and the shape of the landscape manages to create a feeling of isolation. And, almost as importantly, it was possible to take photos that looked 'untouched'.

There is only so much time that can be spent in the desert in the heat of the day however. The sensation of the sand searing the soles of your feet whilst the sun slowly boils your brain sends everyone scuttling for the shade eventually. Back at our car we realised we still had over two days of car hire left to use and nowhere to go. We decided to head further south to Fish River Canyon. We had intended to stop here on the way to Cape Town but now we decided to drive there instead.

It took us a few hours to reach tarmac again and a few hours more heading along dead straight roads south to Keetmanshop. Close to Keetmanshop are several large 'stands' of kokorboom, Namibias most famous tree, also known as the quiver tree. The English name derived from the use of the wood by San hunters. Also close by is a field of weird and wonderful rock formations called 'Giants Playground'. These provided us with an excuse to stop and stretch our legs for a while before heading on through some more flyblown one-horse towns to Fish River Canyon. The facts themselves are fairly impressive – one of the largest canyons in the world (guess what the largest is... wrong, it's not the Grand Canyon), the second most visited tourist site in Namibia and the largest canyon in Africa. The view are even more incredible – you cannot see any evidence of the canyon until you are right on top of it and then it seems to extend into the distance and over the edge of the world. Fish River Canyon is the location for one of Africa's most famous treks, the 5 day trip from end to end, although (un)fortunately the trek is off-limits during the summer months due to the lack of water en route and the danger of flash flooding. So we couldn't walk through it.

Travelling through rural Namibia it became evident the effect of such a limited gene pool, I harboured suspicions of inbreeding, although this is always a hazard in such sparsely populated places, you only have to wander around Great Yarmouth on a market day to work that out! I would add however that the local people seemed less friendly, but less lazy, than in Botswana, which is perhaps a legacy of years of South African rule. With Cape Town our next destination we are bound to find out.

All that remained was a 500km drive back to Windhoek to drop the car off and prepare to catch a bus a few days back down that same long, and never winding, road.